Washington set to square off against alma mater

UNIVERSITY PARK – Coquese Washington already has been a Notre Dame player, student and coach in her lifetime. She has no interest in her newest label: Notre Dame opponent.

But that’s what’s on tap for the Penn State women’s basketball coach on Wednesday, when the No. 13 Lady Lions will play host to the No. 5 Fighting Irish at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

For the first time as a head coach, Washington will face the school where she spent four seasons as a starting point guard from 1989-93. She went on to earn a law degree from Notre Dame four years later before serving as an assistant and associate head coach for the Fighting Irish between 1999-2007.

“It’s my alma mater, so there’s not a lot of desire to be competitive against people that I love dearly,” Washington said. “Personally, it’s not a game I’m looking forward to playing.”

Though Washington is more than six years removed from her time with Notre Dame, she will see many familiar faces on the opposing bench at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Among them is longtime Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, whom the Penn State coach played for and worked under. In addition, Washington coached current Notre Dame assistant Niele Ivey and another Fighting Irish assistant, Carol Owens, is the godmother of her two children.

“There’s too much history,” Washington said. “Coach McGraw was my college coach and the only coach I’ve worked for. So much of what I know about the game and learned about the game comes from her. She’s like family. So is her staff.”

For her part, McGraw also has little interest in a matchup with Washington and the Lady Lions. She had hoped that her team, a first-time participant in Big Ten/ACC Challenge, would be paired with intrastate rival Purdue.

“I was a little disappointed,” said McGraw, who is in her 27th season at the helm of the Fighting Irish. “Having to go out to Penn State and play someone who is a good friend it’s a no-win situation. You want to win the game, but you don’t want them to lose. I think it’s a difficult thing.”

With Washington as her point guard and team captain, McGraw guided Notre Dame to its first NCAA Tournament during the 1991-92 season. The Fighting Irish coach remembered Washington as a smart player.

“You knew she had a future in coaching,” she said. “She always picked things up quickly, was bright and had a high basketball IQ. She always was very steady in her demeanor. She was a good leader for the team.”

For those reasons, McGraw said that adding Washington to her coaching staff before the 1999-2000 campaign was “the easiest decision I have ever made.” The next season, the Fighting Irish won their first national championship.

Washington remained on McGraw’s staff until she was named Penn State’s head coach in 2007.

“I’m not at Penn State without Notre Dame,” Washington said. “It’s hard to separate the two.”

Penn State (5-1) is facing Notre Dame for the first time since a 75-49 victory on Nov. 16, 2006, in what turned out to be Rene Portland’s final season as coach. The Lady Lions have won all five meetings with the Fighting Irish.

Making it six straight will be a difficult assignment. Notre Dame, which has advanced to three straight Final Fours, improved to 6-0 with a victory over Duquesne on Sunday.

“They’ve got a lot of kids who have played in a ton of big games,” Washington said. “They won’t be intimidates one bit by coming to Penn State.”

The Fighting Irish are the second top-five opponent to visit the Bryce Jordan Center in 17 days. Penn State lost to No. 1 Connecticut 71-52 on Nov. 17. Since that loss, the Lady Lions have won three straight games, including victories over Oregon State and Illinois State on Friday and Saturday at the Junkanoo Jam in The Bahamas.

“We have to be able to execute on both ends of the floor,” Washington said. “Against Connecticut, we didn’t score. We have to be able to score points against Notre Dame or we won’t have a change. We have to fight. They’re a battle-tested team. They’re going to be up for the challenge.”